Personal trainers can employ many different training techniques to boost performance, improve strength and flexibility, mold appearance, and prevent injury. Learning as many techniques as possible only fills a fit pro’s toolbox with more resources to draw on when a client presents with unique challenges. PNF stretching is one of those skills that, when utilized properly, can make a big impact on mobility, pain reduction, and recovery.
What is PNF Stretching?
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching is an advanced stretch technique that relies on reflexes to produce deeper stretches with the goal of increasing flexibility. It was originally developed in the 1940s by Doctor Herman Kabat with the intention of improving conditions like polio and multiple sclerosis. Since then, PNF stretches have increased popularity with fitness professionals and physical therapists.
A stretch therapist uses PNF stretching with clients to contract and release the muscles. A few simple benefits include:
- Improved range of motion
- Injury prevention
- Increased active performance
- Decreased stress
- Reduced tension and muscle pain
The idea behind PNF stretching is that the stretch receptors in the muscle are triggered to relax more deeply in order to prevent tearing. This is accomplished in a few ways, but the most common is to move the agonist into a stretch until resistance is felt. At this point, the client would be instructed to contract the muscle and push into the trainer’s resistance slightly for 6-10 seconds. The muscle should then relax, and the trainer would attempt to take the muscle in a slightly deeper range of motion than the first time.
While it is within the scope of practice for a trainer to provide assisted stretching, NFPT highly recommends getting a specialty certification in this area.
How PNF-Assisted Stretching Changed My Practice
I got certified as a fascial stretch therapist last year and was amazed by the responses I got from people who got on my stretch table for the first time. My company ran promotional pop-ups in the community to build our business brand name and the results were astounding. A quick 15-minute demonstration stretch would make people’s day. Often after the stretch, the client would receive a feeling of euphoria and stress relief.
The reason I initially got in the business of personal training and fitness was to change lives, however I never imagined the impact I would be able to make from a recovery/flexibility standpoint. As a new trainer, my main focuses with clients were more focused on strength, speed, endurance, and occasionally some dynamic mobility. A few years ago I never even heard of a trainer that can physically stretch clients out and not only help improve their muscle recovery and performance but also instantly reduce feelings of anxiety and stress. Not only was I able to help my clients with their physical bodies but I was able to encourage a fried nervous system and overactive mind to relax on my table.
There are many different kinds of PNF stretches but the ones with the most impact are concentrated around the hips and hamstrings. This can probably be attributed to the dysfunction associated with a sedentary lifestyle. Many trainers know that if the hips or hamstrings are tight, the client is likely to experience some type of lower back pain. Believe it or not, most of my clients come to me from desk jobs for relief. Another segment of clients are athletes that book appointments to improve their performance and elevate it to the next level.
The second area that people seem to need relief is in the shoulders. Many laborers and people with physical jobs need help with shoulder issues and upper back from the wear and tear over the years. And again, people with desk jobs also complain of their tight upper back muscles because of the constant shoulder elevation and forward head posture from typing, and stiffness from sitting in traffic during long commutes.
Don’t forget it’s also a common compensation to shrug and tense the shoulders when stressed. The stretch therapists work on releasing dense connective tissue and decompressing the nerves, fascia, and joints thereby preventing further damage or injury.
After the basic demonstration stretch, I explain to people that they are likely going to feel really limber and potentially pain-free for the next few days. I’ve had people tell me after a stretching session that they’ve had severe pain for 10 years and they’ve tried everything and this was the only thing that actually worked for them.
As a result, they were immediately hooked. I have worked with people with disc problems, spinal stenosis, sciatica, MS and post-rehab injuries so PNF-assisted stretching absolutely helps anyone suffering from chronic pain in addition to people just looking to improve their flexibility.
As amazing as the instant relief feels post-stretch, unless people see a stretch therapist on a regular basis, they are required to do their own stretches at home to maintain their improvement. Many people don’t stretch enough on their own but seeing a professional week to week truly holds them accountable to their stretch routine.
Alicia Kelly has been a certified personal trainer in the fitness industry for the past 7 years. She’s worked with a range of clients and recently has gotten certified as a fascial stretch therapist. Her passion and enthusiasm for self-development keep her motivated to continue helping people in the fitness industry.